Your first vacation with your very small child won’t be least bit relaxing, at least not in the way you’ve come to think of relaxing. But it is a break from your routine, a change of scenery and an opportunity for mom, dad and the kids to have plenty of the elusive quality time, instead of having to squeeze family time among work, daycare, preschool, playdates, laundry (and more laundry) and grocery shopping. Finding the right balance of new and familiar, routine and flexibility takes some trial and error. But when you find it, voila, family vacations are eye-opening and a lot of fun for parents and kids, and that’s at least as good as relaxing.
Here’s what we’ve learned about travel with little kids:
1. Know your vacation style:
Vacations you would never have considered before parenthood can suddenly become the right fit when you have kids along. But don’t assume you have to revolve your vacations entirely around your kids, especially when they are very little and don’t yet have opinions (they’ll develop them soon enough).
City, mountain, lake, beach resort, cruise and road-trip vacations (heck, even backpacking Lonely Planet style, if you’re really intrepid) can work with kids. So if you really hate sand between your toes, skip the beach for your first vacation as a family and find a resort with a great pool. If nature makes you itchy, be urban adventurers. Rather than tolerating the vacation you think you’re supposed to have, work on adapting your vacation style for your young companions.
2. Kids are adaptable:
When you’re 6 months old, everything is new and interesting, and there is no normal. Expose youngsters to all kinds of situations at home and on vacation as soon as you can. The sooner you start and the more often you do, the more readily they’ll look forward to and roll with all the novelties a vacation can offer.
3. Do Your Research:
You don’t always need to book all your hotels ahead of time. But it still pays to research your options, ask the questions you want to ask, and have a list ready of two or three hotels that you know have everything you want. Even one night in a hotel can be a exhausting if the room is missing the crib, refrigerator or extra bed you really need. (Start your research with our Lodging Guide!)
4. Get organized:
We generally carry two bags for three people. I take Tiny Traveler’s clothes; her dad takes her gear. If we had a second kid, we would get bigger bags. Our guiding principle is, the less we bring, the less we have to carry or worry about losing. And with airlines charging for even a single checked bag, we want to minimize nuisance fees where we can. One reason we would pack three bags: Letting an older TT be responsible for packing (and keeping track of) her own stuff.
5. Make Lists:
We make a list of last-minute things we absolutely can’t forget – wallet, ID, keys, snacks and sippy cup – and tape it to the front door. And we no longer wait until the last minute to pack, preferring to get started the weekend before we go. Here is a packing list we’ve found helpful.
6. Stick to your routine…within reason:
Kids like continuity and knowing what to expect. If you stick to a baby’s or small child’s nap, bed and meal schedules, give or take an hour (you are on vacation, after all), they will be rested and relaxed. Happy kids soak up and enjoy all the new scenery and adventures that vacations bring (and so do their parents).
7. Have the right expectations:
Kids don’t stop being kids because they’ve crossed into a new time zone. Nap-deprived toddlers still get cranky, teenagers are still moody and tweens are still perpetually mortified by parents. Concessions like moving at a slower pace, agreeing to a few totally kid-centric activities, accepting your kids for who they are and not expecting everything to be perfect go a long way toward making your vacation less stressful and more fun.
8. Three meals a day in restaurants is as least one, possibly two, too many:
We find that breakfast is often the easiest sit-down meal. The kids aren’t fidgety, everyone likes breakfast food and it’s quick. We rarely eat out for both lunch and dinner. Instead, we bring take-out to our hotel room, especially if mealtime is running into nap or bedtime. We buy supermarket rotisserie chickens to eat at a nearby park. In cities we scope out happy hours with food specials. They coincide with family dinner hour, often offer good deals, and sometimes service is quicker than it would be for dinner.
9. Offer them food they would never eat at home:
Novelty is a powerful mealtime tool. Add the right waitress, setting, presentation or name for a dish and kids will sometimes inhale food they wouldn’t look at back home. This is why we share plates whenever we can. This is also a good reason to favor buffets (yet another thing we never did before being parents). Let kids graze, sample and choose what they want to eat and they’ll surprise you. But – for those days when they say no to everything, keep filling, healthy snacks in the room: bananas, yogurt, whole grain cereal and crackers and even a jar of peanut butter keep vacation junk food binges at bay.
10. It’s your vacation, too:
My sister likes to say that on vacation, you’re as happy as your least happy kid. This is why you go to your gazillionth aquarium when you’d rather hit the art museum. But you can carve out parent time with a little effort. You can expect the kids to sit still through one fancy meal during the trip. You can visit an art museum that has kids programs. My husband insists on one meal a day that requires utensils, even at theme parks.
I’m a big fan of tag-team parenting. On a recent cruise, Rich took TT to breakfast a few times while I went to yoga classes. I took her to the kiddie pool while he went to a cooking demonstration or read by the real pool. Check out our other tips for activities that will please everyone.
Keep Trying! The only thing permanent about kids is that they’re always changing. The trip that was a disaster at age 2 will be a smash at age 8, and maybe vice versa. Even if you take simpler trips than you’re used for the first few years, don’t be afraid to be more adventurous as they get bigger.